Photo credit: Daniel Reeve
For a number of weeks I have listened to various positions asserted on the thorny matter of cultural appropriation.
There’s certainly been no lack of content to sift through: an exhibit by artist Amanda PL was cancelled after protests that she, a non-indigenous artist, had appropriated the Woodlands style of art pioneered by Norval Morrisseau.
Following close was the resignation of The Writers Union of Canada (TWUC) Editor Hal Niedzviecki, who wrote an editorial in which he disagreed with the concept of cultural appropriation and suggested (tongue in cheek) that a prize be given for the best act of appropriation. Jonathan Kay, editor at The Walrus, expressed his concern for the way in which the TWUC situation had evolved, saying “the mobbing of Hal Niedzviecki is what we get when we let identity-politics fundamentalists run riot.” A few days later, Kay resigned.
Commentary has flowed from many places. Much of it passionate and worthy of consideration.
To it, we can add a story from south of the border where students, alumni and allies protested the hiring of Alice Goffman as Visiting Professor of Sociology at Pomona College. The essence of the opposition to Professor Goffman appears to be that she embedded herself in a black neighbourhood for 6 years to observe the effects of the application of the criminal justice system. While some critiqued Goffman’s methodology when her book was published in 2014, the protestors at Pomona College seemed, in the words of Jonathan Marks writing in the April 24 issue of Commentary, “troubled mainly by the fact that Professor Goffman is a white researcher who had the effrontery to study a black community.”
I confess that before all this began I had not given the matter of cultural appropriation very much thought. When I had, I most often landed on a position that encouraged the greatest cross-pollination possible between different cultures and different perspectives. Not surprising, I suppose, given that my earlier work as a diversity consultant encouraged me to think, and to encourage others to think, that corporations (and by analogy society as a whole) could be enriched by the multiple perspectives that a diverse workforce could bring to bear once they were permitted to bring their “whole selves” to work.
But now I’m giving cultural appropriation a second thought.
As I read the various discussions on social media, I heard some anger and, not surprisingly, some gripes about political correctness run amok. But most of what I have been reading seems to be people who are really trying to figure out what all this means. When people engage on the matter of Amanda PL’s Morrisseau-inspired exhibit, I’ve read them asking if imitation isn’t the sincerest form of flattery or if this means that only Spaniards (Picasso) or French (Braque) are permitted to paint in the Cubist style. After all, the door has to swing both ways, doesn’t it?
I’ve always found it useful to try to place myself in the shoes (or at least near the shoes) of the person I am trying to understand. As a white Jewish male of a certain vintage I can make no pretense of understanding how an indigenous person in Canada would feel about the appropriation of his or her culture. But are there Jewish analogies that can be made?
No direct ones come to mind. Yes, there is the Merchant of Venice, but whatever my reactions to that play have been – and they have changed over time – I never recall thinking that Shakespeare had no right to create and animate a Jewish character.
I do remember my parents laughing with delight every time a Jewish character was portrayed on television or in the movies. Admittedly, these appearances tended to be comedic and generally positive. I think my parents saw such things as a sign of the community’s growing acceptance by the mainstream (maybe I would have felt differently about the Merchant of Venice had I encountered it in the 1930s?). They didn’t much care, as I recall, whether the actors who played the Jewish characters where themselves Jewish, but others may have felt differently. I also have a fairly clear memory of my mother’s very positive reaction whenever the Weavers version of Tzena Tzena was played on the radio. Were any of the Weavers Jewish? No idea. Didn’t matter.
The other day, though, I recalled something that the late Elie Wiesel wrote in one of his essays (A Plea for the Survivors, 1975).
Speaking of the Holocaust, and its deployment within popular culture, Wiesel said “the Holocaust no longer evokes the mystery of the forbidden; it no longer arouses fear or trembling, or even outrage or compassion for you. For you it is one calamity among so many others, slightly more morbid than others. You enter it, you leave it and you return to your ordinary occupations. You thought yourself capable of imagining the unimaginable; you have seen nothing. You thought yourself capable of discussing the unspeakable; you have understood nothing, you have retained nothing.” And later in the same essay, “once robbed of its sacred aspect, the Holocaust became a fashionable subject; good to impress or shock. Recommended to anyone seeking a vehicle to climb, succeed, create a sensation. You thought that you could face the agony of a people; you have felt nothing.”
So, I think maybe I am starting to get it now. Majority cultures do not have to worry about cultural appropriation because they have deliberately, inadvertently or unavoidably engaged in cultural pollination.
To compose in the style of Vivaldi or sculpt in the style of Michelangelo may expose you to charges of hubris or a lack of originality, but you will not likely be accused of theft. You can’t steal what is being given away or indeed being forced upon you like a second piece of cake from your grandmother.
Minority cultures hold their memories and traditions closer. As you integrate into the mainstream, you may release your grip and open your stories to telling by others to better educate the wider population. But in the beginning, I think it is natural and understandable that communities guard their cultural treasures.
We can do worse than recall the words that John Steinbeck put in the mouths of the women who gathered in a dusty farmyard to sort through their possessions, determining what would be taken and what would be left behind.
“How can we live without our lives? How will we know it’s us without our past?”
This may not satisfy anyone else but me, but maybe we can relax just a little, stop assuming that all doors must swing both ways all the time, and take the time to consider why this may be the case.